KRISTIN OJANIEMI, 34, looks out the window of her family’s camp as her father, Armas Ojaniemi, 60, of Bruce Crossing, Michigan, stands in the doorway in Ottawa National Forest in Michigan. Upper Peninsula cabin owners have cleared out from the national forest after their leases from the previous landowner expired. The land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

KRISTIN OJANIEMI, 34, looks out the window of her family’s camp as her father, Armas Ojaniemi, 60, of Bruce Crossing, Michigan, stands in the doorway in Ottawa National Forest in Michigan. Upper Peninsula cabin owners have cleared out from the national forest after their leases from the previous landowner expired. The land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

OTTAWA NATIONAL FOREST, Mich.

The cabin belongs to the mice now, and they make their nests at will.

In the past they never had enough time to get a good nest going. But the family that owned the cabin was recently forced out, and now the little piles of mouse shreddings grow without interruption in the rafters, and in the corner where the stove used to be, and along the wall where beds once were.

Armas Ojaniemi looked at the fluffy nests. The lifelong Yooper was standing inside Woodtick Camp, the name he gave his family’s cabin a quarter century ago, when they’d used a sled to haul timber down a high hill, a few boards at a time, and spent a whole summer working hard to build this little hideaway just yards from the Ontonagon River, deep into the woods, far from any town.

“It took a lot of work to get here,” Armas said in a thick Upper Peninsula accent. “Our uncle Willie, he had polio when he was a boy, and he was pretty crippled. He crawled up and down the hill to come help build it.”

To get to Woodtick Camp, you take a gravel road to a hidden trail. Then you need a four-wheeler or a snowmobile to take you a mile and a half into the woods. From there you have to hike 300 feet down a steep slope while holding an old rope tied from tree to tree to keep you from falling down the hill. Then, after a hike through the forest, you reach the cabin. If you didn’t know where it was, you’d never, ever find it.

For years, this was a second home for the 60-year-old logger. He even built a little sauna behind the cabin. “We’d come over here quite often,” he said. “My wife and I would come down and stay for a month or so, stay down here and enjoy the spring like right now, when the ice would go out.”

His 34-year-old daughter Kristin Ojaniemi stood in the open doorway, listening to him reminisce. “It didn’t take much to enjoy yourself out here, ’cause it’s so peaceful,” said Armas, who lives in tiny Bruce Crossing, the nearest town. “And everybody would say, ‘How can you go down there for a month? What do you do?’ Ah, there’s so much to do. All the hikin’ you could do and watch nature at its finest. As you can hear, it’s quiet. You don’t have to hear no traffic at all. Just love it down here.”

But those days are now over. Their cabin, which had been in their family for three decades, is no longer theirs. They’d already emptied it out. And soon they’d have to abandon it.

Since the 1950s, a local power company had leased little plots of land it owned to 155 locals for a few hundred bucks a year so they could build cabins along the Ontonagon River. Then, in 1992, the federal government acquired the land, and said the owners had to move their cabins or abandon them after their final 25-year leases expired. Any structures left after that deadline would be demolished, and the trails leading to them would be blocked and smothered.

Twenty-five years ended on New Year’s Day this year, and the extra 90 days the owners were given to clear out ended on the last day of March. Any day now, the cabins will be torn down or burned to the ground. The U.S. Forest Service now owns the land, which has been made part of the Ottawa National Forest, and the agency is against private property on public land.

The cabins, the Forest Service has said all along, have to go. This land, they have insisted, should be open to everyone, not just a few cabin owners. And even though everyone knew this day was coming, it doesn’t make leaving any easier for the handful who are left.

“They should’ve grandfathered it in or something, because jeez, our ancestors were here, you know?” said Armas. Like so many in the western Upper Peninsula, his family came over from Finland nearly a century ago, and they’d practically lived in these remote woods ever since. “They were down here doing the same thing we are — enjoyin’ camp and huntin’ and fishin’. They were able to utilize it, but now nobody can. I mean, who’s gonna come out here now? There ain’t no camp to come out to here.”

In the Upper Peninsula, a cabin is called a camp, a term that describes not so much a location but rather a lifestyle. It’s a place where the world is stripped for a while to its bare essentials — fresh water, hunted food, candles and flashlights, family and friends. Families pass them down through generations. They’re an integral part of U.P. living.

For the families who are losing these camps, this isn’t just the loss of property. It’s the end of a big part of their lives.

“It’s not right,” Armis said. “Just don’t seem right at all, you know, for all the time you put in here and stuff, to have to lose it. But that was somethin’ we were told at the beginnin’, but we said we’re still gonna do it, build a nice sauna and everythin’ and enjoy it for the 25 years that we got, and hopefully they’ll change their mind is what we all said.”

He stood in the cold, empty cabin, maybe for the last time.

“They didn’t change their mind.”

The Ontonagon River starts as several branches spread throughout the western U.P. that come together as one before flowing into Lake Superior. The river spawns several waterfalls and skirts dozens of lakes on its way. And it’s tainted a muddy brown because the red clay and sandstone beneath it stain the water.

For years, much of the forest around the river was owned by the Upper Peninsula Power Company, which serves two-thirds of the population of the U.P. and which bought the land in the early 1950s to build dams for generating hydroelectric power.

Since the company had no real use for the land on either side of the river itself, UPPCO leased scattered 1- acre parcels to local residents who couldn’t afford to buy their own property so they could build small cabins near the water, where there was good hunting, great fishing and beautiful scenery.

People built structures in all shapes and sizes, and gave them names like Bar None Lodge, Doe Haven, Altoon’s Alehouse, Da Troll Camp and Fuzzy’s No Road Condo. Most were barebones log cabins without power or running water. But they were solid camps that lasted for decades.

The dams never materialized, so, in 1992, the company sold 34,000 acres to the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that works to create public parks and protected lands. But before they did, the company offered the camp owners 25-year non-renewable leases. The TPL then sold the land to the U.S. Forest Service, which made it part of the 993,000 acres of the Ottawa National Forest. Suddenly the camp owners were staying on federally owned public land. The government said it would honor the leases until they expired, but then the camp owners had to go.

When all this happened, 25 years seemed like a long time away. Surely something could be worked out in that time, most owners figured.

As the deadline approached, efforts by local politicians to sway the Forest Service failed. A resolution was passed last year in the state Senate calling on the agency to grant exemptions to the families, partly based on the roughly $45,000 in total taxes and fees that cash-strapped local municipalities stood to lose from all of the camp owners each year, and partly based on the 15,570 single-family cabins currently permitted on National Forest System lands throughout the country under the Recreation Residence Program. Why not, they argued, add these mere 155 people to that number?

“It’s just not right,” said state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, the sponsor of the resolution. He argued that the trails leading into the woods were provided and maintained by camp owners, and with those trails soon to be gone, only the most adventurous hikers would ever make it this far into the woods, thus defeating the Forest Service’s stated purpose of opening the land for everyone.

“They say it’s for all of us so we can enjoy it, and then they turn around and block things off, which means you and I can’t go out there.”

Casperson said he has brought the issue to the attention of federal officials both inside and outside the Forest Service, with no luck. “The clock has ticked down here,” he said. “I think if the right people were aware of it and the appropriate people stood up it could be changed, but it’s getting late. Once these people tear these things down, it’s over.”

Three years ago, Armas’ daughter Kristin, a director at a TV station in Wisconsin, began shooting a short movie about life at her father’s cabin. “To tell our story, you know?” she said. “My dad’s camp is being taken away. In a few years he’s not going to be able to come down here and use it anymore.”

Soon, she met other camp owners in the same situation, and her short film snowballed into a full-length movie called “Up a River,” a two-year project that took her to 30 of the camps, where she interviewed the owners, filmed their lives and captured some of their last days in their cabins. The film was shown at a number of regional film festivals, and she drew further attention to the issue by writing letters to politicians and starting online petitions to get the camp leases extended or grandfathered.

“I really don’t know what their logic is for really wanting us out,” she said. “There’s way too many more pros than cons for us being out here.” She mentions the lost canoers who became stranded deep in the forest at night several years ago and were rescued by her dad, who happened to be at his camp. And the Boy Scout troop that sheltered in someone’s cabin one night during a rough storm. Most of the camps remain unlocked throughout the year, she noted, and camp owners encourage people to use them if they’re facing trouble or they’re lost. In that sense, they already essentially belong to the public.

“I think the U.S. Forest Service just doesn’t like people on their land,” she said. “They want the public to utilize it, but at the same time they’re kicking us out. It’s the public’s land, but I think they feel that it’s their land, not really the public’s land.”

Lisa Klaus, public affairs officer with the Ottawa National Forest in Ironwood, said there’s no provision to allow people to keep their camps, no matter how sympathetic forest rangers might be.

“As you can imagine up here it’s hard for some people to lose access to those cabins, so we totally understand that they want to stay,” Klaus said. “But we just do not have the authority to extend those leases.”


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